Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Holiday Travel Travails

I am traveling with my daughter to Magnolia Springs, Alabama for the Thanksgiving holiday. Chances are that the average reader of this blog has never heard of Magnolia Springs, Alabama. There is a very good reason for that. It is in the middle of nowhere.

Well not exactly nowhere. It is about an hour west of Pensacola, Florida. Compared to Magnolia Springs, Pensacola is a big city. Compared to any city I know, Pensacola is hardly a big city. According to a 2006 US Census estimate, Pensacola has a population of around 53,000. That is smaller than Ellicott City (US Census estimate for Ellicott City is 56,000).

What this means to holiday travelers like my daughter and I is that you have to go through Atlanta to get there. In many small southern towns like Pensacola the locals will often quip that to get to heaven or hell you’ll need to go through Atlanta to get there.

Right now my daughter and I are sitting in Atlanta. We arrived here a little after 5:00 PM. Our connection to Pensacola doesn’t leave here until 9:55 PM. This is one brutal layover. I am sitting here wondering why I didn’t just fly here, rent a car and drive to Magnolia Springs. As they say, hindsight is always 20/20.

We are making the best of it though. Peanut passes the time with her Nintendo DS while I hop on a Boingo wireless connection and work on a blog post. Our seats at the gate are valuable real estate. We watch as others hover around us looking for a spot to drop. We make sure at least one of us always stays with the seats.

Soon we will board another plane for the final leg of our journey.

It can’t come too soon.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ollie’s Is Coming

Ollie’s Bargain Outlet will soon open a new store in the Columbia East Marketplace. The eclectic discount retailer has signed a lease for 33,000 square feet in the shopping center located at the intersection of Route 175 and US Route 1 in Jessup. This shopping center was originally developed to be an outlet center but that strategy never really worked out for the previous owners. Atlantic Realty Companies purchased the center from the Burlington Coat Factory and recently completed an $8 million renovation of the property.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

This Dog Can Dance!

Send your own ElfYourself eCards

Friday, November 21, 2008

Did It Really Happen?

This past Monday I put up this post about a shooting in Savage. Over the following days I kept scanning the newspapers for the story thinking I’d do a follow up post with a link to it.

I never saw anything about it in The Sun, The Washington Post, The Columbia Flier or The Howard County Times.

This got me wondering if in fact it really was a shooting. It certainly appeared that something major had occurred. The Royal Farm store was roped off, detectives and uniformed police officers were all over the scene and one of the even asked that I not take pictures. When I asked one of the workers at the quick lube place next to Royal Farms what happened they told me there had been a shooting and that the victim had been carted off to the hospital.

Are things that bad in Savage that a shooting isn’t deemed newsworthy?

Somehow I doubt that.

Still, I’m left to wonder what actually happened Monday afternoon at the Royal Farm store in Savage

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Main Street Awash in Wine

As I was perusing the pages of the Howard section of The Sun this morning, I noticed a liquor board hearing for a “900 square foot tavern located at 8210 Main Street.”

That address sounded vaguely familiar. It is in fact the space that was formerly occupied by Annabel’s. The new place will be called Pure Wine Café.
According to this sign the place will open sometime this winter.

It is shaping up to be a pretty good winter for tavern goers in the old mill town. There is also a liquor board hearing notice posted at the Diamondback Tavern. As I drove by I saw activity inside. I’m guessing they hope to open soon too.

And there is also the Wine Bin though I am not clear as to whether they will actually have a wine bar. The license they’ve obtained is for package goods.

No matter how you cut it, it’s all good for Ellicott City.

At Least the Lawyers are Making Money

The seemingly never ending saga of WCI’s proposed luxury condominium tower in Town Center continues. Despite the facts that the sales center has closed, the deposits returned and the website taken down, the lawyers for the developer have continued to press their case against the legal standing of the towers litigious opposition.

According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun today, “the Court of Appeals announced last week that it has agreed to examine the lower court decision, which determined that a plaintiff who lives in a condominium next to the tower site has legal standing.”

Although it remains questionable as to whether WCI will actually build this building it does make sense for them to continue to defend their right to build it. A property is worth more with the entitlement to build in place than it would be with a legal issue left unresolved.

In this way, WCI is in the same boat as GGP with its request for zoning changes in Town Center.

So while the steel erectors, architects, and real estate agents wait for an actual building and a better economy, at least the lawyers can make a few bucks with a proposed building and a bad economy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

More Than Just Fifteen Thousand New Trees

The folks over at Columbia 2.0 have put up a nice little video tour of GGP’s proposed plans for Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion. You can find the video here.

Much Better



What a difference a year makes!

Last December, in The Washington Post Marc Fisher wrote two columns about our poinsettia tree. Most people were aware of the first one in which he told the story of GGP’s decision to end this holiday tradition (in which he mistakenly identified GGP as “Greater Growth Properties”) but not everyone saw his follow up story which told a much more personal story of the tree. You can find the story of the poinsettias tree’s creator here.

For more on last years poinsettia tree protests check out this post, this post and this post.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Shooting in Savage

As I was cruising down Route 1 this afternoon I noticed a good deal of police activity around the Royal Farms store in Columbia Junction. As I approached the store I saw that it was roped off with crime scene tape.
A bystander informed me that a man had been shot multiple times as he exited his truck on the side of the store.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

My Dry Cleaner

I’ve been going to the same dry cleaner every week for years. Yang Soo Kim runs Hans Dry Cleaners and Tailors on Oakland Mills Road just off Snowden River Parkway. She’s the best.
Last Friday afternoon it was rainy and gloomy out but inside her shop I was greeted by the same warm smile I’ve grown accustomed to over all these years and, just like that, it didn't feel so gloomy anymore.

Tough Sledding for Santa

Back in the day when I was working as a marketing director for The Rouse Company, tradition held that Santa would arrive for the holiday season on Black Friday. Over the ensuing years the arrival of the big guy moved up to the weekend before Thanksgiving.

In an ever increasing effort to jump start the holiday shopping frenzy, Santa now arrives two weekends before Thanksgiving.

It feels way too early. Friday night at the mall the poinsettia tree was still without poinsettias and the lines for the Santastic experience were non existent.

And all the poinsettias and holiday décor can’t cover up the harsh realities of the current economy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

All about Trees

My friend Dave Forrester used to say that there are more trees in Howard County now than there were before Columbia came along. Dave is a former development director for The Rouse Company. We used to bust on Dave by calling him “Dave De-forester” to which he would usually bring up this tree fact.

My response to him was always “who actually counted the trees before Columbia was built?”

Well it appears that somebody has been counting trees, and not just in Howard County. As I drove to work on Wednesday I heard this story by Robert Krulwich about trees on NPR. According to the story, NASA can now “calculate roughly how many trees we have on Earth.”

As it turns out, there are approximately 400,246,300,201 trees on Earth and that works out to about 61 trees for every man woman and child on the planet.

Sounds like a lot doesn’t it?

Well not so much when you consider how many trees we use every year from building materials to golf balls which get their bounce from the gum of the gutta-percha tree. The most mind boggling statistic in the story was the number of chopsticks that are used and disposed of every year. In China alone, some 900 billion chopsticks are discarded annually which equates to about 25 million trees.

The good news is that trees are a renewable resource. The even better news is that, according to this recent post in Columbia Talk, another 1,000 trees will soon be planted in Howard County Parks.

You can read more about trees in Columbia here.

Another Local Merchant Expands

Feet First isn’t the only local retailer placing a big bet on the continued growth and prosperity of Howard County. Eric Stein, the owner of Decanter Fine Wines in the Hickory Ridge Village Center, has opened a second store in the new retail center in Shipley’s Grant.

The Wine Seller is the first new store to open in this well designed small shopping center. It will soon be joined by Starbucks.

I dropped by the store last night and was generally impressed. While they are still in the process of installing store fixtures and wine racks, it is already apparent that this store will offer a nice selection of wines.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Scene This Week In...

It’s that time of year again, the time when otherwise rational people begin turning their homes into tacky light shows. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against nicely appointed holiday decorations. It’s the elephants dancing on circus balls that get to me. What does that have to do with Christmas?

I was in the Home Depot at Chatham Shopping Center last weekend when my eye caught this year’s holiday décor offerings. Every year it seems that the envelope of tackiness is pushed just a little farther. Technology has enabled a whole new era of holiday overkill.

A few years back, an enterprising electrical engineer named Carson Williams outfitted the outside of his home in Mason, Ohio with lights synchronized to the Trans Siberian Orchestras “Wizard in Winter” orchestration. The resulting video became a phenomenon the internet and subsequently was even featured in a beer commercial. This year you can actually purchase your own home light show synced to music for around three hundred bucks. No doubt some of these will debut in neighborhoods around Howard County this holiday season.

For this reason, this elephant décor item is this week’s scene in Ellicott City.

With all the gloomy economic news it is nice to see a local merchant who is thinking of the future. For as many years as I can recall, Feet First has been a mainstay of the local running scene. The locally owned athletic shoe store has served Howard County soccer and running enthusiasts’ since 1979. Up until last month all those years were spent in a small corner store in Wilde Lake Village Green.

Times change. With the arrival of new competition like Road Runner Sports in Gateway Overlook, Jeffery and Karen Cohen decided to up their own game by relocating into an expanded space at the Hickory Ridge Village Center. The new store is about twice the size of the old store and carries a lot more merchandise.

I stopped by yesterday and picked up a brand new pair of Asics GEL Kayano 14’s and six pairs of running socks. The new store looks terrific. For their optimism about the future of their business in Columbia, I made Karen and Jeffrey this week’s scene in Columbia.

GGP Stock Trading Below a Buck

At yesterday’s close of the markets, General Growth Properties stock closed at $0.49 per share. In trading this morning it was down another $.06 per share.

With all the bad financial news surrounding the company I was surprised to find that Rich Moore, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets in Cleveland, has an “out perform” rating on the company’s stock.

According to this article in today’s Washington Post, Moore believes the company is trying to “put pressure on creditors and alert investors to the risks confronting General Growth after the company's previous management team was criticized for not being "as upfront as they could be…”

Moore believes that the company’s filing yesterday was meant to send a message to its creditors saying “Let's be real. This is what we're facing. If we don't get it done, there are going to be consequences.”

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Its Back!

The poinsettia tree is going back up in the center court of The Mall in Columbia. After it’s banishment into the cold as part of the Symphony of Lights at Merriweather Post Pavilion last year (sans poinsettias), the Columbia holiday tradition is returning to its rightful place.

To be honest, I didn’t think this would ever happen. Even when Claire Lea, Sandy Carbotti and Janet Shinski organized a quiet protest demonstration over its removal, I didn’t think there was much chance that it would ever come back.

Thankfully I was wrong.

You can find the posts about last years protest here and here.

Happy Veterans Day!

So how come this federal holiday is not part of a three day weekend?

It’s because the origins of the holiday go back to the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month when the armistice was signed between the Allies and Germany in 1918 at the end of the First World War.

It was briefly homogenized by Congress into a three day weekend in 1968 but changed back to the 11th day of the 11th month in 1978.

You can find the historical timeline here.

GGP Now Using the “B” Word

According to this article by Alby Gallun in yesterdays Chicago Real Estate Daily, General Growth Properties is now openly suggesting for the first time that it may have to seek bankruptcy protection. In a quarterly report filed after the markets closed yesterday, GGP reported that “Our potential inability to address our 2008 and 2009 debt maturities in a satisfactory fashion raises substantial doubts about our ability to continue as a going concern,”

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Sum of a Columbia Man’s Life

I attended a funeral last Saturday. It was for James Binckley, the father of my buddy Jim Binckely. The funeral was held at Christ Church “New” Brick church on Oakland Mills Road. Ironically, for a guy who personified the typical early Columbian he spent his last repose at a church that predated Columbia instead of one of the “interfaith” centers that Columbia pioneered.

Jim and Dottie Binckley were amongst the first families of Longfellow in the Village of Harpers Choice. They bought a new Ryland home on Lighthouse Court in the late sixties for around $33,000.00 and raised six kids on that prototypical Columbia cul-de-sac. The family grew as Columbia grew.

I knew three of the Binckley bunch, Jim, Dave and Betsy. But if you knew any of the kids you certainly knew their dad. He was one of those dads who loved to engage his kids’ friends. If he busted your chops it meant he liked you.

But my acquaintance with Jim’s dad was peripheral at best. That was made very clear to me as I perused the two tables of memorabilia that his family assembled for the reception following the funeral. Amongst the items on display were his college yearbook, his wedding photo, newspaper articles, golf memorabilia and other physical representations of a full and varied life.

Yet what really struck were the photos. There were the early group family photos when the kids were growing up followed by the later photos with an ever increasing clan of spouses, children and grandchildren. In all them there was Jim’s dad sitting in the middle, smiling, happy, and proud.

It struck me that this indeed was the true sum of the man.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Just Horsing Around

My colleague Tom Whelan sent me this video clip today. It is from a security camera mounted in front of a friend’s brothers’ real estate office in Saratoga Springs, New York. Back in the summer of 2007, Roohan Realty installed a horse sculpture in front of their offices as one of thirty four “Saratoga Style” horses in a citywide arts project. The statue was subsequently vandalized a few times which prompted the installation of the security camera.

Last Sunday the camera caught these urban cowboys demonstrating their horsemanship skills. Supposedly these aspiring cowpokes wandered over from a wedding reception across the street.

I think alcohol was involved.

Big Boy Toy Store Closing

According to this story in the Business section of yesterday’s Washington Post, high end electronics retailer Tweeter is closing all of their stores including the one in Dobbin Center in Columbia.

This is becoming an all too familiar story in these tough economic times.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Harris Teeter Coming To Turf Valley?

In a previous post I speculated that Greenberg Gibbons Commercial was negotiating with Harris Teeter for their new shopping center in Turf Valley. In order for that to occur the developer first needed to amend the Planned Golf Course Community zoning to allow for a 55,000 square foot grocery instead of the 18,000 square foot grocery allowed under current PGCC zoning.

According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun today, the County Council voted unanimously on Monday evening to approve this request.

It is no secret that Harris Teeter is trying to expand its footprint in Howard County. They opened their first county store in the Kings Contrivance village center earlier this year and have already started work on a second store in Maple Lawn. A typical Harris Teeter store is 55,000 square feet.

In This Months Business Monthly

“Blue Cross used to be the gold standard of healthcare.”

That is what a friend of mine said to me last month as he articulated his frustration with increasing premiums and declining service. I’m not so sure about the “gold standard” thing but I will say that it seems like my recent dealings with big blue have been more frustrating than they used to be.

Then again, I didn’t used to think much about health insurance. For me it was just like automobile insurance or homeowners insurance. I was happy just to have it and I hoped I’d never really need it.

Sadly that is no longer the case. As I have gotten older heath insurance has become more important because that is what drives the quality of health care I receive and that care begins with my primary care physician.

My previous primary care doc was a good guy. His office, on the other hand, was a nightmare. It was common to sit in his waiting room for at least half and hour after arriving for a scheduled appointment. When I’d finally be ushered into an exam room I’d typically wait another twenty minutes before actually seeing him. I’d then get about ten minutes of quality time. In return for this privilege I paid my big blue insurance company over $300 per month.

I put up with this situation until it literally became unhealthy. A little over a year ago I came home from my morning run and was feeling pretty beat up. At Mama Wordbones insistence I scheduled an appointment with my doc for later that week. When he finally entered the exam room for our “quality time” I told him that my chest felt tight and I was feeling generally lethargic.

“Stop running and see me again in a week.”

Three days later I had a heart attack. I never saw him again. After some research I found a new primary care doc.

Now my doc has decided to move his practice to a non insurance model. He will no longer deal with big blue or any other insurance company for that matter. He does not believe that the insurance reimbursement model allows him to deliver quality care to his patients. If I want to continue seeing him I will need to pay him directly. I have decided that this makes perfect sense for me.

And the response of my big blue insurance company?

They’ve told me I need to pick another primary care physician.


You can read this month’s column here.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Fired Up Fan

Apropos to nothing locally, there was this brilliant football fan story by Matt Zapotsky in the Washington Post this morning. After tailgating at the Monday Night Football game at FedEx field, a fan placed hot charcoal from their grill into the trunk of their car before heading inside to the game. The resulting inferno took out a total of ten cars and took the fire department 25 minutes to bring under control.

“…one person whose sport-utility vehicle was burned said she suspects it was a Steelers fan

The spokesperson for the fire department offered up these words of wisdom “The lesson learned is don’t put hot coals in the trunk of your car.”

Who would have known?

Never Say Never

Back in February I wrote this post about a brief conversation I had concerning yesterdays presidential election. When I was asked who I thought would be our next president I replied that if I were a betting man I’d put my money on Barak Obama.

“Never gonna happen,” was the gentlemen’s reply.

I can't help but wonder what he is thinking this morning.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day Line Etiquette

As I stood in line waiting to vote this morning I chatted up the folks around me like I normally do. The topics we discussed ranged from the waiting time (it wasn’t bad at 10 AM at my polling place) to the Redskins loss to the Steelers last night. Notably omitted was any discussion of politics.

Apparently this is quite common. As I drove to the office I was listening to The Diane Rehm Show on WAMU. She was taking calls from people all around the country sharing their voting day experiences. Those who said they spoke with others while standing in line also said that they spoke about everything but politics. Maybe we are a more civil people than it sometimes appears.

And doesn’t it just figure, the one time I actually rooted for the Redskins they had to go and blow it.

Monday, November 03, 2008

He Makes It Sound So Easy

Once again Alan Klein shows his depth of understanding of an issue. In an article by Jonathan Pitts in The Sun yesterday, Alan demonstrated a keen sense of the Central Library issue in Town Center.

Instead of embracing a plan that could transform an overcrowded functionally obsolescent facility with a world class center of learning modeled on the groundbreaking Cerritos Millennial library, Alan and his CoFoDoCo adherents have opted to lecture us on sustainability.

“"The first rule of sustainability is 'use what you've got,'" Klein said. "Let's put our good ideas into the library we have."”

And just how does CoFoDoCo suggest we do that?

Let’s say for a moment that we could figure a way to incorporate the current building into the type of facility that GGP envisions. The current library building is maybe 25,000 square feet. The type of library that GGP is talking about would require a building of about 90,000 square feet. It would be impossible to put a building that size at the current library location. It just won’t fit.

Scene This Week In...

It can’t be much fun for Greg Hamm these days. No sooner is he ready to advance his case for the redevelopment of Town Center than his company is hit with a perfect storm of a credit crunch that threatens its very existence. Last week, at forum held by Bring Back the Vision, the first question put to him was whether The Mall in Columbia is up for sale. It is tough enough that he has to deal with the local folks who think things are just fine the way they are, he also has to deal with the uncertainty that surrounds GGP’s financial woes. The expression on his face in this photo says it all and that makes Greg this weeks’ Scene This Week in Columbia.

It is that time of year when I start shutting down the home lawn care operation. This year, that task involved removing the blade from electric lawn mower and taking it in to be sharpened. It has been awhile since I’ve had to do that and I wasn’t sure where to take it. I don’t think the chain home improvement stores provide that type of service. The old hardware stores do though and thankfully some of them still exist in Howard County.

I took my dulled blade up to Clarks Hardware on Route 40. This store still looks and smells like a hardware store. Every time I go there I find the staff to be both accessible and helpful. They sharpened my lawn mower blade on the spot for eight bucks.This really should not surprise me. Clarks Hardware has been in Howard County longer than even an old dog like me can remember. The first time I ever visited their store it was located on Maryland Avenue across the street from the train station in Ellicott City. Years later they moved to St. Johns Plaza before finally building their own new store farther up Route 40. Despite all these moves they still provide the same down home local service and for that reason they are this weeks Scene in Ellicott City.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

An Uncertain Future

General Growth Properties is on the ropes. In his column in The Sun today, Jay Hanock summarized the depth of the companies’ financial distress.

“It faces a balloon payment of nearly $1 billion, due Nov. 28, which it doesn't have the cash to pay and which it will have extreme difficulty refinancing in this credit market.An attempt to sell up to $2 billion in preferred stock flopped. Hence the need to sell malls, quick.”

And it’s not just the malls for sale either. The company openly acknowledges that anything and everything is for sale.

"We're certainly happy to discuss other properties" with qualified buyers, General Growth spokesman Jim Graham said. "We've had plenty of inquiries about properties all over the country."

Ironically, that may prove to be the company’s ultimate redemption. GGP isn’t the only one trying to unload real estate to raise cash these days, particularly retail real estate. It’s a great time for the few buyers too. Everyone is bottom feeding. No one is going to pay the true value of these assets right now. It may be in GGP’s creditors’ best interest to renegotiate with GGP rather than put them in default. They would stand a better chance of being made whole on their loans if they allow the company to get through this period than they would if they force the company into bankruptcy.